Poland’s most senior cleric has claimed there is an attempt to “eliminate the teaching of the Catholic Church and its message” through the use of a deluge of child sex abuse stories in the media that have rocked the Polish Church and left the reputation of its leaders in tatters.
In a vigorous defence of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Josef Michalik slammed the press for “distorting” the Church’s stance on sex abuse and accused it of an anti-Church crusade to silence it.
“We are witnessing in Poland a very clear drive to eliminate the teaching of the Church, and its message,” said the archbishop, adding that people were getting a “distorted image of the teachings of the Church”.
Archbishop Michalik has been at the centre of a maelstrom of abuse scandals involving priests, and come in for withering attacks from the media after suggesting that child sex abuse stemmed from divorces, broken homes and feminism, which, he said, encouraged, the destruction of the traditional unit.
The archbishop was forced to apologise this month for saying victims of child abuse were children from broken homes who were “looking for love”.
His comments were regarded by many in Poland as an attempt to pass the blame for sex abuse involving priests from the perpetrators on to society or even the victims, even as the Vatican has increased its efforts to punish abusers.
Over the weekend, Archbishop Michalik stoked further controversy by speaking out against sex education classes, saying they deprived children of their “innocence”. His opposition comes despite scientists and education specialists arguing that sex education classes teach children how to avoid abuse and what to do if they become a victim.
The scandals buffeting Poland’s Catholic Church has brought its reputation to what many regard as a historic low. For much of Polish history, the Church has had an exulted position and was synonymous with the essence of being Polish, and the country’s long battles for independence.
But that is now under threat as it struggles to deal with the sex abuse scandals, along with an increasingly secular society, falling church attendance and a growing separation between Polish identity and Catholicism.
Adding to the woes of the Church is a serious drop in the number of men volunteering for the priesthood. In 2005, the year the Polish-born Pope John Paul II died, 1,148 men signed up to be priests, but last year that number had fallen by almost half to 589.
Despite the bad news, the Church has adopted a far from conciliatory approach. Archbishop Michalik said that its no-tolerance stance on sex abuse had been deliberately ignored by the media, along with its clear condemnation of abuse as “evil”.
In a show of support for the beleaguered archbishop and as evidence of the growing hostility towards the Polish media, an association of priests rallied to his side, accusing the media of peddling slander.
In an open letter, the association expressed its “solidarity” with the archbishop and expressed its “concern over a wave of slander, manipulation and distortion by the press, and inspired and fuelled by the press.”
Some 27 Polish priests have been tried for sex abuse since 2001, but most cases ended in a suspended prison term.